Amid reports of massive 16-20 hour power outages across Pakistan causing public unrest, the Barack Obama administration has indicated it is open to Islamabad's plea for a civilian nuclear deal akin to the US-India agreement, notwithstanding continued disquiet about Pakistan's bonafides on the nuclear front, reports Times of India.
The first indication of a possible policy shift by US, which had till now rejected Pakistan's entreaties for a nuclear deal, came in an interview the US ambassador to Islamabad, Anne Patterson, gave to a Pakistani-American journal in which she said the two sides were going to have "working level talks" on the subject during a strategic dialogue on March 24.
Patterson confirmed the claim of her Pakistani counterpart in Washington Hussain Haqqani, which were initially denied, that the two sides had had some initial discussions on the subject. Acknowledging that earlier US "non-proliferation concerns were quite severe", she said attitudes in Washington were changing.
"I think we are beginning to pass those and this is a scenario that we are going to explore," she told a LA-based Pakistani journal.
Another top US official, Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke, was a little more circumspect. "We're going to listen carefully to whatever the Pakistanis say," he replied, when asked about Islamabad's demand for a civilian nuclear deal.
The Pakistani establishment, ahead of a wide-ranging strategic dialogue with US on March 24, has made parity with India, including a civilian nuclear deal, the centerpiece of its ramped-up engagement.
Intimations of a change in US policy came even as new reports emerged about the extent and scope of government-backed Pakistani nuclear proliferation in a book by former weapons inspector and non-proliferation activist David Albright. Successive US administrations, in an effort to absolve Islamabad and save it from embarrassment from past misdemeanors, have suggested that the country's nuclear mastermind A Q Khan acted on his own without permission from the Pakistani government or the military, but this assessment is strongly challenged by the non-proliferation community.
Talk of a nuclear deal with Pakistan also comes on the heels of the country signing a gas pipeline deal with Iran last week even as Washington was bearing down on Tehran.
The idea that Pakistan deserves its own nuclear deal to overcome a trust deficit with the United States was first proposed by Georgetown University academic Christine Fair. "More so than conventional weapons or large sums of cash, a conditions-based civilian nuclear deal may be able to diminish Pakistani fears of US intentions while allowing Washington to leverage these gains for greater Pakistani cooperation on nuclear proliferation and terrorism," Fair argued in a newspaper article earlier this year.
However, aside from Pakistan's proliferation footprints and ties with Iran, there is also the small matter of getting such a nuclear deal past the 44-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, which made an exception for India but might find Pakistan more unpalatable. The US-India deal itself remains to be fully implemented more than five years after it was first conceived.
Some experts also question whether Pakistan has the capacity to buy or absorb any nuclear power reactor given that the country is broke. But then, even signaling a shift in US policy is something that might mollify Pakistan for now. In fact, even Fair's recommendations of a conditional nuclear deal was seen in some Pakistani quarters as a conspiracy to penetrate and neutralize the country's nuclear assets.